Last week I stumbled on the Very Short Introduction series and was very impressed with Mark Noll’s book on Protestantism. This week I ventured in again and was much less impressed. The bible is a hard topic. But I was really put off by the focus and direction. The first chapter was on approaching the Bible as either classic literature or sacred text took me a while to get over. I actually had to go back and re-read it after reading the whole book. After the second reading I was not as irritated once I had some context, but I think it shows some of the editorial problems of the book.
The next chapter is about how the bible was written and I think is pretty mixed in quality. It focuses on the standard ideas of the Old Testament streams of authors that were merged together in the Mosaic books. It talks about Q as the original source for the synoptic gospels. But neither here or later in the book is there a real overview of the actual content of the bible. I know that would be hard, but what is the point of introducing the bible, without actually spending some time on the content of the bible.
The next section on canon was decent and I think focused primarily on the right things.
But the rest of the book was all over the place (and it is more than half of the very short book). It talked about the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac as an example of the variety of ways stories are interpreted. And in what I think was a misstep it primarily focused on varieties of interpretation as initially heretical and then mainstream. That is true in some cases, but not by any means all. So it looked at alternative readings by the Reformers against the Catholic church, then the Deists and other Enlightenment challenges, then challenges to scriptural understanding by various Liberation theologians and others in a post-colonial world.
The last two chapters were on the influence of the bible on the arts and culture and in politics. Again, not a bad subjects, but is it really more important in a short introduction than the actual content of the bible?
Overall, I was disappointed in the editorial focus of this book. I will have to do a better job reading reviews in the future. The Amazon reviews were mostly positive, after reading I noticed that the Goodreads.com reviews were much more mixed. If you have a short introduction to the bible, I think that it should probably focus about what it in the bible, how it was written and how the cannon was formed as its primary focus. In a book that is only 168 pages, only around 50-60 were really about what I think should be the primary focus. The rest of the book was actually probably better written and more engaging, but really should not have been the focus of a book that is supposed to introduce the bible.